Unrest

omar-jen-wheelchair-woodsShe is incredibly bright and beautiful, a graduate of Harvard who was about to complete her doctorate at Princeton. She was in love with a brilliant man and the two of them travelled the world together. They made plans to marry, have a family, build their stunning careers together, and then she caught the flu. It was a particularly harsh case with fevers of one hundred four degrees. When she was well once again she felt debilitated, but thought little of the residual effects. She had after all been very ill. She told herself that it would simply take time to regain her energy, but something was very wrong because instead of growing stronger she began to feel more and more weak. There were even times when her mind did not seem to work properly. She was unable to find the proper words to express herself. It was all so frightening.

Eventually her symptoms became so concerning that she sought the expertise of a medical doctor. He insinuated that it was all in her head, diagnosing her with what used to be known as hysteria. He suggested that she was reacting to some deep seated trauma that she most likely was unable to remember. He sent her home with no real explanation for what was happening, and she began to wonder if she was indeed going crazy. That’s when she got an idea.

The next time her symptoms became so severe that she literally collapsed in pain, unable to move or express herself, she asked her husband to film the incident. She took the video to a neurologist who was stunned by what he saw. He eventually told her that she had ME. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a strange disease that is thought to afflict ten to fifteen million people worldwide. There is no definitive test for the illness and no cure. The diagnosis is made based on symptoms alone which include excessive fatigue after mental or physical activity, intolerance to exercise, joint and/or muscle pain, memory problems, difficulty walking, sore throats, headaches, flu-like symptoms, sleep disturbance, bowel problems and mood swings.

The disease is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome and affects those who have it along a spectrum from individuals who endure a mild attack and then recover fully, to those who become completely homebound and bed ridden. There is no known cause but the disease appears to follow otherwise fairly typical and minor illnesses like the flu. Some believe that the roots of the problems lie in hormonal or allergy issues, but none of the research has proven any of the theories. It is a greatly misunderstood disease that sometimes results in psychiatric diagnoses rather than physical ones.

The woman whose life was so impacted by ME is Jennifer Brea, and she has a debilitating case of the disease that has radically altered the trajectory of her life. In a fashion keeping with her personality she decided to film her journey along with that of four other victims so that she might shed light on a mostly misunderstood illness. In conjunction with Sundance Films she created the documentary. Unrest, that chronicles her experiences as well those of the four others whose lives have been so radically changed after contracting ME. The film debuted on the PBS program Independent Lens this January and its power to visually explain what happens to those who have ME is emotionally visceral.

Jennifer Brea holds back nothing in her depiction of what ME has done to her and the relationship that she shares with her husband. She honestly expresses the fears and disappointments that plague her as much as the symptoms. She presents a compelling argument for more research by noting that those who are stricken often become like missing persons as they are forced to be hostages to their illness. She tells a compelling story of families broken apart and individuals losing their identities all while the rest of the world remains mostly ignorant of the horrors of this strange condition.

Her own story is one of the love that she and her husband share in spite of the problems that have so changed the way that they once thought they might live. She wants to be able to give him the kind of relationship that she had thought they would have, but instead is continually thwarted by recurrences of the most trying symptoms. Her husband has nobly stood by her, but even his patience is often tried by the confusing nature of his wife’s illness.

Ms. Brea shows a family in Sweden whose child was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility because doctors there were unwilling to accept a diagnosis of ME for her. Brea also introduces us to a woman who had been a happy wife and mother, one who had no idea that she would eventually be confined to bed with her own husband believing that she was just insane rather than physically ill. Her marriage deteriorated and she struggled to survive. When one of her daughters came down with the same disease her world unraveled even more.

The film is so personal, so real that those of us viewing the stories become involved with the characters, particularly Jennifer Brea herself. We watch her gaining strength and find ourselves hoping as much as she and her husband do that she will somehow miraculously improve. We cry with empathy as we become all too familiar with the struggles associated with ME.

Unrest is a touching and important documentary and quite worthy of the accolades that it has received. Hopefully it will also become the impetus for more research into the mysterious illness that it depicts with so much unflinching insight and compassion. At the present time very little is being done to learn how and why this illness affects certain people. There is only a smattering of interest in finding something that will cure those afflicted with its devastating symptoms. It is a grand mystery that shows no signs of being solved while real people suffer from the misunderstandings and lack of knowledge surrounding it. Hopefully Jennifer Brea has opened a door of awareness that will ultimately lead to the studies that will eradicate it or at least lead to more hopeful treatments. Perhaps just by spreading information about ME Unrest will at the very least bring more compassion to those who deal with its tragic effects.

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When In The Course

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It always amazes me how we humans generally follow the rules. On any given day millions of people adhere to speed limits, stop at red lights even if there is nobody around, stay inside their designated lanes. There is always an implied threat of being caught and given a citation for breaking the law, but mostly people do what they are supposed to do because they realize that the statutes have been set in place for safety and the common good. We innately understand the value of working together for the benefit of all even if it is sometimes a bit inconvenient.

There are thousands of examples of how most of us know, understand and appreciate conformity to the directives that keep our society running smoothly. Now and again, however, we encounter situations in which it becomes uncomfortable to simply sit back and adhere to the status quo. In those moments we feel a grip in our stomaches and ask ourselves what our role should be. Do we sit back and quietly watch or do we rise up to voice our concerns? When is it best to avoid the fray, and when must we say something lest we no longer be able to gaze at ourselves in the mirror? How do we decide which aspect of a complex disagreement is the most right and just?

Since I am a huge fan of history I tend to be a documentary fangirl. Netflix is all too aware of my viewing preferences, and they continuously alert me to any new features that are available for my viewing pleasure. Recently they suggested that I might enjoy a program about Winston Churchill and his role during World War II. The story began at a time when much of the world was doing its best to ignore the warning signs that Adolf Hitler was a maniacal and dangerous dictator. Churchill was one of the few who consistently voiced concerns about the direction in which Germany was heading, in part because he was so vocal, Churchill’s views were initially thought to be a bit kooky. Nobody wanted to engage in controversy, and doing so was thought to be risky. Thus most of the world donned rose colored glasses and went about their routines hoping that the shenanigans in Germany would at worst be little more than an annoyance. Of course we know that such was not the case and Churchill was proven to be the right voice at the right time. His analysis of Adolf Hitler was insightful and he never quelled his criticisms of the dangers that he saw unfolding in Europe. If not for his steadfast diligence, Britain might have endured the same fate as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France.

Churchill somehow sensed that quietly accepting Adolf Hitler and hoping that he would simply fade away was an untenable stance. He raised his voice at a moment in time when it was unpopular to do so. People were tired. They had lost much in World War I. They worried that becoming divisive might shatter the peace that was precarious at best. it felt better to just ignore the craziness, keep the boat from rocking. Eventually the entire world would be forced to take a stand, choose a side, something that most had hoped to avoid. The question that lingers to this day is what people might have done from the very beginning to prevent the carnage that ensued. How different would that phase of history have been if Hitler had been defied not just by other nations, but by the German people from the moment that his ideas began to appear unhinged? 

The problem with such wishful thinking is that it is utterly useless after the fact. It is only in the moment that each of us has an opportunity to be heard and to do what we believe to be right. The trick is in unravelling the complexities of a situation and reaching the heart of the matter. To be willing to stand on a mountain top warning our fellow human beings of danger, we must first believe with all of our hearts that we will not be viewed as just another boy crying wolf. We must sense that what we have to say is so important that to secret it away in our hearts would be morally wrong. In such instances we sense that we must bend or even fracture the mores and rules that confine us so that our warnings might be heard.

My Facebook wall has been filled with impassioned pleas for love and understanding of late. Mothers worry about the contentious world in which their children must grow into adults. It feels as though hate is festering in the most unexpected places. We can’t even get a sense of well being from listening to our president, because he is more concerned with defending himself than being a beacon of hope. It feels as though we are being torn apart as a nation and within our relationships. So many are choosing to lock themselves away from it all. Only a few brave souls are willing to take the heat of criticism by voicing their concerns. The rest try to pretend that the unrest will soon all just go away, but even recent history has shown us all too clearly that the issues that trouble us only become more and more complex when we ignore them. Furthermore, they are rarely resolved when we are unable to find ways of working together.

I truly believe that the evil of this world represents a small minority, but it is nonetheless up to all good people to keep it in check. The hate that we see must always be called out for what it is. There can be no excuses, no watering down of our contempt. We cannot just look the other way when we see it, for it is when the good people join forces that they transform into an immovable power. They cannot be stopped until the depravity is eradicated. This truth has been demonstrated time and time again, so I wonder why we are so often reluctant to use it.

The fact is that there are groups of people in our country today who advocate the most detestable ideas possible. Under the guise of protecting an object, a statue, such groups held an abhorrent rally in Charlottesville that ultimately resulted in the death of an innocent young woman and the injury of others. Their only intent was to spread their poisonous ideas, not to somehow save the history of the south. They travel from venue to venue hoping to gain attention and new followers. They besmirch the legacy of the generation who defeated Hitler and all for which he stood when they parade through towns imitating the one of the most vile regimes that the world has seen. They are petty and lost souls who fester in anger, blaming imagined  slights for their own inconsequential lives. Any good thinking person should shun them and their despicable ideas, not find excuses for their behavior and thereby fuel their momentum. In other words, this is a watershed moment in which decent people must stand together to let such groups know that we will not accept their torches, their Nazi salutes, or their philosophies of hate. We will not allow them to enlist us in their misdirected causes. We will not find ways to mitigate their responsibility for spreading a disease of prejudice. We will make them the pariahs that they deserve to be.

Don’t turn away. Don’t tune out. Sometimes we have to make noise. Sometimes we have to demonstrate our courage. Our children are watching. Let’s show them what to do when in the course of human events we have no other choice than to stand firmly, proudly and publicly for what is right.

Ordinary Heroes

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Imagine that is it 1940, only a little over twenty years since World War I ended. Europe had been decimated by ‘the war to end all wars” as it was known. So many young men had been killed or maimed by the hideousness of trench warfare. Royal cousins had fought against one another in a seemingly unnecessary battle that left the common folk weary and eager for peace. In the midst of the rebuilding of nations along came Adolf Hitler with far reaching ambitions for making his country great again. At first the world stood back in stunned disbelief when he began a land grab starting with Czechoslovakia. By the time that he invaded Poland all of Europe understood that he had to be stopped. Britain joined other nations in agreeing to fight against the growing menace of German fascism. Thus in 1940, soldiers from Great Britain and France were engaged in a battle with Germany that had turned into a stunning rout, stranding 400,000 troops on the shores of Dunkirk with their backs to the sea.

It had been an inauspicious beginning to war for both Britain and France. At Dunkirk the soldiers from those countries were in retreat and things looked very bad. The Germans taunted the soldiers with flyers dropped from planes bragging that they had surrounded the Allies on all sides. The troops waited to be rescued and returned to Britain while being continually subjected to air raids from the Germans. They were like fish in a barrel. Added to the difficulty was the fact that big ships could not dock close to shore, so troops had to be ferried in small boats, a tedious and time consuming task. Even though the Brits were able to gaze across the channel and see the outline of home they may as well have been thousands of miles away. In that dark moment many wondered if Britain would be forced to surrender to Germany, leaving Hitler to overtake most of Europe with little or no resistance. It was an horrific possibility.

There are certain times in the history of mankind when ordinary people find the courage to do extraordinary things. Dunkirk was one of those moments. The British understood that they had to get their troops home safely at all costs or face the prospect of an invasion at home. The troops endured nine days of air battles that killed thousands of men, sunk ships and resulted in the loss of many Royal Air Force planes and pilots. It was a dispiriting time and one of the worst military defeats in the history of the country, but help game from a most unlikely source. When word of the disastrous situation reached the people of Britain an incredible thing happened. Fishermen and pleasure craft seamen sailed their boats across the channel to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue efforts. Many of them would become casualties as a result, but even more would bring hope and a way home to the thousands of soldiers who had all but given up any expectation of seeing Britain again.

It is a story of bravery and loyalty and love that Christopher Nolan has brought to the big screen with his usual genius. With an incredible cast, music from Hans Zimmer and sweeping camera angles the movie transports the audience into the tense and unnerving evacuation scene. It is an breathtaking film that provides the viewer with a birds eye view of both the fears and heroics of the soldiers and their leaders as well as the citizens who chose to risk their own lives to help their countrymen. Mostly it is a study of goodness overcoming evil, a subject that Nolan knows how to portray so well.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happened at Dunkirk in a world that had quite evidently gone mad. I find myself wondering if those of us who live today would be able to muster the courage that the people of that era drew upon again and again until Hitler and his minions had been defeated. Would we have sat back helplessly or would we have been able to draw upon our inner strength to do what was ultimately right? I just don’t know. We seem to have somehow lost our willingness to confront evil. Maybe we have to literally be pushed to desperation before we will ever be able to rise up against the forces who bring so much violence and death to the world. We Americans certainly sat back watching even in 1940, hoping that all of the trouble would somehow just go away while we were safely an ocean away. Ultimately when we felt the sting of attack a couple of years later we too found the grit to join in the fight against an evil that had to be stricken from the earth. Maybe the truth is that none of us want to even think of war until there is no other reasonable choice.

I feel very uncomfortable with the state of things in the present time. We seem to have a president who is more worried about his reputation and popularity than with the needs of our country. We have citizens and lawmakers who are intent on fighting with one another rather than having genuine concern for the problems that plague us. I seriously wonder how we would fare as a people and a country if were we to suddenly find ourselves under attack. Would our dysfunction prevent us from doing what was necessary to save and protect our nation? Would we find a way to demonstrate the kind of determination to preserve freedom that the British citizens did back in 1940? Have we somehow lost our way, and if so will we ever be able to find our way back? These are the troubling thoughts that continually pass through my mind.

I would like to believe that in times of trouble we will be able to join together just as the people of New York City did after 9/11 and much like the citizens of Boston after the bombings at the marathon. Somehow I think that we as a people are in a state of lethargy, but our basic instincts to maintain liberty and justice at all costs still linger inside our hearts. I hope that if there comes a time when we are challenged just as our grandparents and great grandparents were we will find the determination that we need. I refuse to believe that we have all forgotten our role in promulgating the good rather than bad, love rather than hate.

Movies like Dunkirk are important. They draw on our emotions to challenge us to think. They push us to ask questions and learn from our human history. I recommend that all Americans who are over the age of thirteen see this film and take the time to educate themselves about what was happening in that time of long ago. Perhaps it will convince us of the need to consider what is really most important in our society today and to choose leaders who will help us to end our malaise, not further divide us.

Chizen Itza

Chichen_Itza_3.jpgThere was a time when the Mayan people lived in great cities in Guatemala and Mexico. They had developed a syllabic form of writing and created books to record their history. They were advanced in the study of astronomy, predicting celestial events with great precision. Their calendar was remarkable in its accuracy, coinciding with the Roman version in stunning ways. They were among the first people to use zero as a place holder and had an uncanny understanding of mathematics. Their art and architecture was and remains beautiful in its representations. They were a remarkably advanced people but without much reason their influence began to wane around the thirteenth century. Today there are maybe six or seven million Mayan people left living mostly in Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, often in impoverished conditions.

There are many theories as to what may have happened to this once thriving society. Drought may have brought famine. Disease may have decimated the population. War with other tribes like the Aztecs may have resulted in great losses. Mostly though it was the arrival of the Spanish that spelled doom for the Mayan people. They greeted the white men from across the ocean as though they were gods and soon enough found that they were not destined to be treated well by the invaders. The people and their lands were commandeered and they were forced to learn and speak only Spanish, as well as to follow the Catholic faith of the missionaries who came to “civilize” the new world.

There had once been vast libraries of Mayan writing but the Spanish colonists feared the strange hieroglyphs and burned most of the volumes that they found thinking that they were works of the devil. By the nineteenth century the Mayan language was all but wiped out and only a handful of Mayan texts had survived. Many of the great structures lay in tangled mounds in the jungle, seemingly forgotten and laid to waste. The Mayan people were neglected as well, often spending their days growing corn and living in primitive conditions without education. It was difficult for them or anyone to realize how great their ancestors had once been.

In the mid nineteenth century a few people around the world began to take an interest in the forgotten civilization. One by one ruins from the past were uncovered and studies of the mysterious structures commenced. Of particular interest were the strange symbols that appeared to represent some type of writing. It would not be until the middle of the twentieth century for the complex characters to be translated by some very unlikely young people, including a twelve year old boy. Once the secrets of the forms were discovered a treasure trove of history and ideas was revealed to a startled public that suddenly realized how advanced this society had actually been.

During my recent visit to Cancun I was fortunate to be able to visit one of the premier Mayan ruins in the world at Chichen Itza. This had once been a great city that was developed toward the end of the Mayan era. It featured a grand pyramid that was as remarkable for its astrological features as its architecture. It is a mathematical wonder based on a three hundred sixty five day year with a total of three hundred sixty four stairs and a temple at the to complete the total. The pyramid itself represents the three states of existence, including the earthly condition, the underworld and heaven.

The Mayan people believed that when they died they would first visit the underworld which was not a bad place. Instead it was where they would have to complete certain tasks before they would be allowed to enter heaven. Much of their art and architecture alludes to birth, death and the final ascension into heaven with the gods.

During the time of the spring and autumn equinox a shadow appears to wriggle along the main staircases on the sides of the pyramid giving the impression of a snake slithering along. To this very day crowds gather to watch this strange and fascinating  occurrence. It must have been quite magical to the ancient Mayans who saw it as a deeply religious experience.

The Mayans were farmers who depended on the production of corn but they were also great warriors who for a time dominated opposing tribes. They prepared their young men for battle by staging ballgames on a field that still exists at Chichen Itza. It is a long area enclosed by stone walls featuring the imagery of a snake and hieroglyphs and carvings that tell stories of the great leaders and events. The structure was built in such a way that it carries sound quite well so that the audience would have been able to hear announcements without the need of microphones or sound enhancing methods. Along the side walls there are large stone circles through which the athletes were to toss heavy balls using only their arms, legs and feet but no hands. The winners were lauded but the losers often became sacrifices to the gods. It was truly a blood sport and the letting of blood featured heavily in many of the religious ceremonies as well. There was definitely an element of extreme violence even among people who appeared to have so much knowledge about the natural world.

Chichen Itza is remarkably well preserved and features enough buildings to give a real impression of how large this city was. One structure boasts a rather quaint feature. If a group of people clap their hands in unison the sound of a local bird echoes through the air. Yet another wall depicts a man with a beard, a strange aspect given that the Mayans did not grow hair on their faces. Many theories have been developed regarding who this unlikely character may have been. Mayan legends tell of a tall white blue eyed man coming to the land in a huge boat and teaching the people many important things about farming and astronomy. He is said to have told them as he was leaving that he would one day return but he cautioned them to be wary of other strangers who might look like him but would be violent rather than benign.

Chichen Itza is about a two hour drive from Cancun. The best way to go these days is with a tour. Driving alone is not advised because the journey winds its way through miles of jungle and there are still worries that members of cartels may take advantage of unwitting visitors. We chose an all day tour that also took us to an old colonial town where we were able to visit San Sebastian Church and see the modern day Mayans at work. We also stopped at a lovely restaurant for lunch where we had an opportunity to shop for local works of art. After a guided tour of the Chichen Itza site we went to a cenote which is a sink hole caused by the collapse of land around an underground river. It was literally a kind of oasis in the middle of brutal heat and humidity. Many of the younger tourists took a dip in the one hundred fifty foot deep waters cooling themselves after a very hot day.

I’m now on a crusade to learn more about the Mayan civilization. I have purchased books and watched documentaries in an effort to discover the history and the accomplishments of a people who built centers of great knowledge at a time when my own ancestors were probably wandering from one place to another hunting and gathering just to stay alive. Visiting Chichen Itza was a mind altering kind of trip and I totally recommend the adventure. 

The Secret

devil-in-the-white-mansion-556-1415558594.jpgI’ve been told that I should have been a psychologist or maybe a detective or perhaps a lawyer. I am a fan of murder mysteries and true crime. My interest in such things have not so much to do with enjoying the macabre as having a profound curiosity about human nature. People are fascinating to me and I often find myself wondering what leads someone to perform dark deeds. I have friends who are fellow travelers in my hobby of studying the facts in a murder trial or attempting to solve a crime. Among them is my godson who is only a fifth grader. He and his mom listen to podcasts on his way to school and among his favorites is Martinis and Murder. When I visited with him last week he and his mother recommended several movies and television series that I should watch. Among them was Foxcatcher, an Academy Award nominated picture based on the true story of John DuPont, a man from one the wealthiest families in the United States. It was a great film with a fascinating tale and incredible acting particularly from Steve Carell.

I mention this movie not so much to review it or to be a spoiler but to comment on the fact that even those who seemingly have everything are sometimes actually bereft. John DuPont was believed to have well over two hundred million dollars back in the nineteen eighties, an amount that is unimaginable to most of us. He lived on a vast estate, traveled in his own private plane and was virtually able to enjoy his wildest dreams and yet he suffered from a personality disorder that eventually devolved into mental illness. He had been alone and friendless for most of his life and seemed to be a disappointment to his mother. He struggled to find a place for himself in spite of philanthropic efforts designed to bring himself attention. He seemed to be an individual who was unable to connect with others and form healthy and loving relationships. In the end his life was a tragedy.

How often do any of us hear that money can’t buy happiness? Our next thought is that we would surely like to try our hand at proving that having a large bank account may in fact be the golden ticket to satisfaction. I know I’ve daydreamed about such things before. I imagine myself paying for college educations for my grandchildren and those of friends. I insist that I won’t change my lifestyle that much, but will just make a few renovations to my home and take some exotic trips. I plan to give large donations to the University of Houston and don’t exactly blush at the idea of having a building named after me even though I claim that I want my largesse to be anonymous. I protest that I want no attention drawn to my good deeds, and I only desire to possess a fortune so that the people that I know and love will not have to endure the stress of worrying about making a living and such. Of course, once I reflect on such ideas I realize that it is impossible to receive such a large windfall without having it change everything about my life, and I realize that I would never be ready for the attention that would surely come my way.

I suspect that there is something gloriously wonderful about the anonymity of being a regular working stiff that most of the folks who live in River Oaks or other such places never have. They have to constantly worry about people’s motives in befriending them. They are watched so closely that a bad hair day becomes a headline. They are criticized continuously for the things that they do or don’t do. They sometimes have to find ways to isolate themselves just to get away from prying eyes whereas nobody cares how I look when I make a quick run to Walmart or even that I choose to shop there.

I remember how shocked the world was when Jacqueline Kennedy remarried after her beloved husband John was assassinated. She made a curious choice in the person of Aristotle Onassis who was much older than she was and not known for his good looks. He whisked her and her children away to an island, however, which was no doubt precisely what she wanted for her family. He had the means to allow her to live for a time without the pressures that come from being a wealthy and famous celebrity. Hre children were able to grow outside of the limelight. It was a brilliant choice on her part and I suppose that she loved him for giving her this great gift.

After all is said and done we are all just human. It is certainly important to have enough income to have a home stocked with food and the basic necessities. It helps to be able to provide for our children’s educations and everyone enjoys the ability to afford a little fun now and again. Essentially none of us need millions or billions of dollars. What we do require is love and comfort. Abuse and heartache have no economic bounds. We tend to think that having more money will allow us to solve any problems that arise but time and again we are reminded that such is not the case. The darker side of our natures has been known to assert itself all across the financial spectrum. Somehow we find ourselves being more shocked when there is violence in a family of means than when it occurs on the so called other side of the tracks.

Some of the happiest people that I have ever known have had very little. Their wealth lay not in bank accounts, real estate holdings, or possessions but in their relationships. They are the souls who inspire us with their big hearts. What they have to give is compassion. I continually learn of the angels among us who perform good deeds that are astounding. They take the last of their paychecks to quietly purchase a wheelchair for the victim of an accident or to buy groceries for a family in need. They rarely mention their kindnesses. They do not look for gratitude. They teach their children the value of people rather than things. They enjoy the simple pleasures of long conversations with friends or walks on cool spring days. It doesn’t take much at all to make them smile. They love good jokes and laugh from the bottom of their bellies. They may have to pinch pennies to pay for an unexpected repair, but they choose not to worry because somehow they always find a way to get things done.

Our human experience brings us many emotions. We all have moments of suffering. Money if used in the proper way will most certainly eradicate some of our troubles and woes but it is never the panacea. How we feel almost always boils down to how we approach the realities that test us. If we believe that things are the secret to a wonderful life we will probably find disappointment again and again. It is in truly honoring every person that we encounter without ulterior motives or unrealistic expectations that we find the happiness that we seek, and that rarely costs a thing.